Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Ybor exhibit showcases Tampa-Cuba baseball connection dating to 1880s

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Tampa Smokers baseball team regularly took on the Havana Cubanos.

Ybor City Museum State Park

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Tampa Smokers baseball team regularly took on the Havana Cubanos.

YBOR CITY — The Tampa Bay Rays made baseball history in March when they took on the Cuban national team before a Havana crowd that included Cuban leader Raul Castro and President Barack Obama.

But sharing a baseball diamond dates clear back to the 1880s for squads from Tampa and Cuba.

In the 1940s and 1950s, in fact, a minor league baseball rivalry between the Tampa Smokers and Havana Cubanos was so fierce that Elizabeth McCoy, curator at the Ybor City Museum State Park, compares it to modern-day Florida-Florida State football games.

"Tampa has a lot of people living here who were not born here, so (they) may not be aware of this baseball connection with Cuba," McCoy said. "That is our job at the museum — to teach about it."

The museum starts the lessons with a free, public lecture on the topic at 5:30 p.m. today at the Cuban Club, 2010 Avenida Republica de Cuba, Tampa. Keynote speaker will be Roberto González Echevarría, author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.

A professor of Hispanic and comparative literature at Yale University, González Echevarría is a Cuba native who played baseball on the island then later moved to Tampa, where he joined an Ybor City semi-pro baseball team.

"He is the perfect person to talk about this," McCoy said. "He has his firsthand experiences and knowledge of the nuances of Tampa and Cuban baseball."

It was in the late 1880s that a team from Cuba first travelled to Ybor City, soon after it was founded, in part, by Cuban immigrants. They took on a squad representing El Liceo Cubano, a social center for immigrants from Cuba.

The Tampa-Cuba baseball rivalry was born.

Over the ensuing decades, semi-pro teams from Cuba and Tampa competed in scrimmages. A Tampa all-star lineup would tour Cuba in a barnstorming session.

Minor league games between the Smokers and Cubanos from 1946 to 1954, when the teams were part of the Florida International League, regularly sold out the 8,000-seat Plant Field in Tampa and 30,000-seat Gran Stadium in Havana.

"This was a giant rivalry," McCoy said. "Fans really looked forward to the games. You had a lot of fans in Tampa from Cuba and with family in Cuba."

The Friday lecture is a part of the museum's yearlong "Traces of Cuba" exhibit.

Its purpose is to highlight "the aspects of modern Tampa culture that harken back to that historic relationship with Cuba," said Chantal Hevia, president of the Ybor museum.

"Look around and it's easy to see," she said. "Our food, architecture, fashion, festivities, all have a trace of Cuba."

González Echevarría noticed this familiarity when he and his parents moved to Tampa from Cuba in 1959 as political exiles from Fidel Castro's revolution.

"The transition was traumatic but was smoother because so much of Cuba's culture was a part of Tampa," said González Echevarría, 72.

Regular baseball games between Tampa and Cuba had been halted by this time because of the revolution, but ties remained through former Cuban players living in the city.

Among them was Eleno Agapito Mayor, a left-handed pitcher in Cuba from the 1930s to 1950s.

It was Mayor who saw potential in González Echevarría and found him a spot on a Tampa semi-pro team.

And it was Mayor who later proved a valuable source for González Echevarría's history book on Cuban baseball, published in 1999.

But as proven by the Rays' trip to Havana, the history of Tampa-Cuba baseball is still being written, Ybor museum president Hevia said.

"History is living," she said. "I look forward to watching more added to the history."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

Ybor exhibit showcases Tampa-Cuba baseball connection dating to 1880s 10/17/16 [Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2016 9:12pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Southeast Seminole Heights holds candlelight vigil for victims' families and each other


    TAMPA — They came together in solidarity in Southeast Seminole Heights, to sustain three families in their grief and to confront fear, at a candlelight vigil held Sunday night in the central Tampa neighborhood.

  2. It's not just Puerto Rico: FEMA bogs down in Florida, Texas too

    HOUSTON — Outside Rachel Roberts' house, a skeleton sits on a chair next to the driveway, a skeleton child on its lap, an empty cup in its hand and a sign at its feet that reads "Waiting on FEMA."

    Ernestino Leon sits among the debris removed from his family’s flood-damaged Bonita Springs home on Oct. 11. He has waited five weeks for FEMA to provide $10,000 to repair the home.
  3. McConnell says he's awaiting Trump guidance on health care

    STERLING, Va. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday he's willing to bring bipartisan health care legislation to the floor if President Donald Trump makes clear he supports it.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he’s “not certain yet” on what Trump wants.
  4. Tampa's Lance McCullers shows killer instinct in pitching Astros to World Series


    HOUSTON — It felt like the beginning on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, the arrival of a new force on the World Series stage. The Astros are back, for the first time in a dozen years, and they want to stay a while.

    Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers (43) throwing in the fifth inning of the game between the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Sunday, July 12, 2015.
  5. Jones: Where are the difference-makers on the Bucs defense?


    ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — They can't tackle. They can't cover. They can't pressure the quarterback, let alone sack him.

    Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) scrambles past Bucs defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (98) during the first half. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]